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A Stack Overflow user's reply to Experts Exchange blogpost (williamhilsum.com)
121 points by sathyabhat on Feb 16, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

With all the interest currently focused on Q&A sites, Experts Exchange actually presents an interesting turnaround opportunity. Despite the last few years of squandering goodwill with their deceptive solution to the findability/paywall paradox, they are still one of the longtime residents of the space, and they still have a massive -- albeit creaky -- corpus of questions and answers. They should hire a strong UX/UI team and do a clean-sheet redesign: new logo, new zen-like appearance without all the noisy clutter, logos, UI "junk", fake blurred out answers with "sign up now!", etc. They should set up a strong information design and analysis team to mine that huge corpus for opportunities to segment their product into paid and free components -- and then update the business model to a legitimate "freemium" approach.

I realize this is all easier said than done, but it does seem like there must be real value under the barnacles. Every time someone scrolls down past screen after screen of ads and blurred answers and has their "I see what you did there" moment, goodwill is squandered and the community impression of deception and spamminess builds.

Experts Exchange's need to talk about Stack Overflow is a sign of the shifting dynamic between the two sites and that they feel the need to make it negative indicates, to me at least, the relative strength of the two sites.

The issue is that EE is having to justify $12.95 a month worth of value over SO and, as a user of both sites, it seems to me that for a vast majority of people that value simply doesn't exist. Yes there is a free option but it's so badly hidden that it's clearly not something they have any real interest in and feels like it's there purely so they can say it's there. If that's not the case then then put it next to the various paid options.

Like many companies before them, they've found that their market has changed. What was previously a salable product is now something that is available for free (or at least something broadly comparable is available for free).

To be clear I have no issue with EE's right to charge for their service, I just think it's doomed to failure when the guy down the road doesn't.

There seem to be two options from here:

1) Tough it out and hope that SO doesn't last and that they can keep going with their existing business model. Suggesting that SO is going to run out of money sooner or later is fine. Maybe it will, maybe it won't but don't expect me to pay for your service while they are there and don't charge. That's the reality EE needs to deal with and if that's their strategy they need to hunker down and dig deep because it's going to cost them in the short term.

2) Look for a new business model. Either something totally new or at the very least a tweak to what they're doing now. No idea what it is, if I did I'd probably be doing it myself, but it seems to me that a new reality demands a new model and that simply denying that is railing against the dying of the light.

Maybe there is another choice they can look at but whatever it is, I don't think bad mouthing the competition is going to cut it.

Experts Exchange's need to talk about Stack Overflow is a sign of the shifting dynamic between the two sites

This. In a competitive market, you attack the guys above you, and ignore the guys below you. EE has just let the world know where they view themselves vis-a-vis SO.

Initially SO talked about EE. (In some of their early podcasts and videos, they talk about "the site with the hyphen").

Yup, and at this time it was SO who were obviously the runner-up. How quickly this has changed!

Yep, this was kind of my point. I've no idea if Jeff and Joel still talk about EE, the podcast is no more and I've not seen anything on the blog about it.

But regardless of whether they do or not, EE seem to feel the need to talk about SO which they didn't in the past.

It's a great way to get business ideas - find someone who is doing something you think is useful but not doing it well and execute it better.

fwiw, to me, Stackoverflow is worth $12.95 per month because its quick and easy as well as providing both quality answers and quality discussions. EE on the other hand provides questionable value (how do I know that they have an answer before I pay? They've lied about it before; The person who asked the question is rarely (contrary to what EE think) qualified to choose the best answer, SO overcomes this by both letting the asker select an answer AND letting the community decide; SO provides a metadiscussion (the comments) about each individual question and answer, afaik EE provides no way of requesting additional information or someting on somebody elses answer without polluting the list of answers). SO also doesn't practice sleazy spam techniques to get my attention.

Of course, if SO decided to force people to pay, I would be less enthusiastic and that inconvenience would detract from its value.

Bad mouthing actually works sometimes (read the plentyoffish story the other day?), but I agree it won't succeed in this audience.

Would you think it could compete with SO if EE completely switched gears? Like, releasing all the content under Creative Commons?

One of the things I hated about EE in the brief time I saw it before the paywall was that it is really, really ugly. And cluttered. It's actually even worse now... SO, on the other hand is clean and the content is easy to find. Even if EE stopped being sleazy, my eyes would rather go somewhere pleasant.

(And what's up with the people without eyes? It makes the site feel really impersonal. A little odd for a forum.)

I agree badmouthing can work but I also agree that this wasn't one of those times. Maybe early on IF Joel and Jeff hadn't had the sort of following among developers that they have they could have stopped SO gaining traction, but it's certainly not a good strategy now.

As I say (in a recent edit), I don't know what the new business model is, just that you've got to question the old one given the changed market.

If I sell beans and there is a shop next door giving them away, the fact I don't know how to compete doesn't change the reality of the situation - that sooner or later customers are going to leave me.

The other issue they have to contend with is that your effectiveness as a site of this sort is proportional to the number and quality of users you have. As your users drift away, so do the chances of your being able to provide the remaining users with answers to their questions.

There are lots of lessons here. Basically EE acted with hubris because they saw themselves as the only game in town. SO came along and quickly dethroned them in the programming arena (EE has a somewhat broader base than that).

Charging people for user-generated content is a shortsighted and doomed business model. What's more it's sleazy. I'm reminded of the whole CDDB/Gracenote fiasco from years ago.

Chris Dixon wrote a great blog post about this [1].

EE in this context (or the "evil hyphen site" as Joel calls it) is acting as an extractor. They're simply putting up a barrier and charging a toll.

Compare this to companies like Dropbox and Evernote. These companies provide pretty amazing services (particularly Dropbox) for free. I've seen many people say they pay for Dropbox not because they need the space but because they want to give them money for their amazing services. These companies are builders.

And let's not forget that EE earned a lot of bad will by once being free like SO and switching to this hideous pseud-paywall monstrosity. Treat your users like crap and they go elsewhere. Quelle surprise.

[1]: http://cdixon.org/2010/06/19/builders-and-extractors/

>> the "evil hyphen site" as Joel calls it.

Was there a reason that they stopped calling it the sex change site? I know that the put the hyphen in there but it was still funny.

One would hope because that was juvenile and completely unnecessary.

They go hand in hand with a lot of funny things though and has rarely stopped people.

Maybe it just got tired and having only heard it a few times I'm not there yet.

Years later I can still get a giggle or two out of WhoRepresents.com

I liked powergenitalia, the Italian power generation company.

counterpoint: the publicity may have benefited them, especially early on, then as a reminder later.

Jokes are the original viral delivery system.

Charging people money for user-generated content isn't sleazy. expertsexchange is sleazy. Imagine if SO had a premium subscription of $5/mo that had a few extra features. Would you consider that sleazy?

It's not the charge itself that's reprehensible, it's all the other shit EE pulled.

I used to just ignore any Experts Exchange items in search results, although since discovering the ability to scroll down for the answer I do now find EE worthwhile. However I feel far, far more fond of StackOverflow and wish them continued success.

The reply from Brutus Lyon[1] does not even warrant a response because everything about it feels wrong. Anyway here goes:

>> EE has always had a free registration at https://secure.experts-exchange.com/registerExpert.jsp . That people choose to not use it isn't EE's fault.

Your fault is hiding the link from users and sending them to https://secure.experts-exchange.com/register.jsp?rsid=60&... when clicking on the sign-up page. This kind of behavior is extremely offensive and hostile especially considering the fact that your users are from a demographic who can easily see through your BS.

>> EE's record, the last I saw, was seven SECONDS. I've seen at least a dozen under 20 seconds. Sometimes you get lucky.

With StackOverflow, I always get lucky. With EE, I have to get lucky to get a good answer (or even to see the answer behind all your paywall and ads).

>> You think voting helps you get the right answer; I think it's arrogant and rude that someone else tells you what works best for you.

WHAT? You ask a question because you want help and don't know what works for you. How is answering that question arrogant and rude? (Voting is also an special type of answering mechanism).

Sometimes the most voted answer may not solve your problem, but tell you that what you are trying to do is wrong. I think votes let you know which of the solutions to consider before trying out any of the solutions.

>> You think "everything should be free"; I think you charge for your services, and EE has every right to charge for its.

Except that you charge for the content your users created not knowing in advance that you guys will make it a closed system.

>> EE is successful because it only promises what it can provide, and keeps that promise.

EE was successful. You are not growing and will go down soon if you continue with your attitude: http://i.imgur.com/Vm1on.png

And what promise do you keep? I didn't know that providing different content to Google and to your visitors is your way of keeping promises.

>> When the $5 million in VC money runs out, then SO will have to get money from someone -- which means ads or a paywall.

All of SO content is in CC license. If they go rogue, the community will just create a new website with the same content.

Basically all this boils down to what kind of people run the site. I am sorry that the people behind EE cannot see the future.

[1] http://blog.williamhilsum.com/2011/02/response-to-experts-ex...

Cool! - and thanks guys for voting on this news item.

Here is my similar response I wrote on my blog:

@Brutus Lyon.

1. That is the first time I have ever seen that Expert sign up page, and the fact that there is no reference to it, or easy way to find it does not really support your point. When I clicked sign up to the blog in order to post a comment, I was asked for payment information.

2. Seven seconds for a response? I bet that that was brilliant quality - What, 2 seconds to read, 5 seconds to type?

3. Still think this goes against what was originally said about accepting answers.

4. Oh, you mean the question askers do not always get to pick the answer... Going again against what was said.

Second lot...

1. Voting does not improve quality, it has the ability to show quality of an already existing answer. Pro users get down voted all the time.

2. The whole point of asking a question is because you do not understand a topic. Having people who do understand vote (typically because what they were going to write has already been written) limits duplicates and allows you to spot a good quality answer. There have been many many times when the top voted answer has not been accepted.

3. I don't at all think everything should be free, please read the last paragraph, and I understand I am being a hypocrite here. All I can say is that the landscape is changing and why should people have to pay to EE, when they can get it free elsewhere.

... The last few paragraphs of what you wrote.... SE has a few revenue generating techniques and already has adverts in a way that does not annoy the user. In fact, I have learnt about some new brilliant products through their targeted adverts (and am using one in a project right now). I will take this any day.

and one thing... EE Was successful, you have been stagnating for ages now. Take a look at any website that compares statistics. (Thanks to niyazpk from ycombinator - http://i.imgur.com/Vm1on.png

re: http://i.imgur.com/Vm1on.png Amazingly, EE seem to have doubled in the last 2 years. Not a zero-sum game.

aside: has SO found a profitable business model yet? They have ads, including for jobs, but last I heard, it wasn't yet actually profitable.

>> >> You think voting helps you get the right answer; I think it's arrogant and rude that someone else tells you what works best for you.

>> WHAT? You ask a question because you want help and don't know what works for you. How is answering that question arrogant and rude? (Voting is also an special type of answering mechanism).

>> Sometimes the most voted answer may not solve your problem, but tell you that what you are trying to do is wrong. I think the votes let you know which of the solutions to consider before trying out any of the solutions.

Yep, sometimes people up vote things which miss the point of questions (as originally intended) but generally they don't and even when they do (a) the information therein is interesting and useful and (b) the answer is probably of interest to anyone else with a similar problem who might want more than a single opinion on how to handle things.

Surely a fundamental part of these sites is that the person originally asking the question is only one potential user of the answers and others will look at the information after them? The advantage of SO is that it allows you to see two things (1) what did the original questioner think most useful and (2) what does the community think is the best solution to the problem.

The original asker is coming from a real world problem / solution perspective which is great but may have specific reasons for accepting an answer which are not stated in the question and are therefore unclear to me. On the other hand the community judges on only what's there and because it's the voice of many is less likely to be skewed by single specific factors.

But ultimately as someone reading the question after the event both of these are useful to me.

Worst case scenario is you have to review two answers not one - the highest voted answer and the accepted answer. To me that's a very small price which is almost always rewarded with better information so I'm very happy with it.

As for thinking that others voting (essentially contributing their time and experience to read an answer, check it against their knowledge and experience and say "I think this is a great point which is worth reading") is rude and arrogant then possibly he should extend that view to those who are so rude and arrogant as to think they could possibly answer your question. They're both contributions to helping people solve their problem as quickly and well as possible and are basically the same thing.

"Yep, sometimes people up vote things which miss the point of questions (as originally intended) but generally they don't and even when they do (a) the information therein is interesting and useful and (b) the answer is probably of interest to anyone else with a similar problem who might want more than a single opinion on how to handle things."


I learn a lot on SO from reading responses that don't answer the question.

If I see "How do I do x?," I'm quite happy that someone answered, but I'll get a lot out of that page long discussion on performance implications and alternatives.

This kind of behavior is extremely offensive and hostile especially considering the fact that your users are from a demographic who can easily see through your BS

Yet EE is a viable business - so clearly their users aren't who you think they are.

I'm guessing that most of the EE user base pre-dates the existence of Stack Overflow and the choice it provides.

Many of those users have an emotional and habitual investment in EE and that's not going to disappear overnight but SO does represent a threat to it both in terms of existing users (who can use SO alongside EE with no additional cost) and new users (who are likely to be drawn to SO's low barriers to use - that is it's completely free, as opposed to EE's technically free but you're going to have to look hard for it).

The point about users seeing through the BS is over stating is but it's hard to see how there isn't going to be an erosion of the EE user base over time.

The one valid point in the original EE blogpost for me is what is the SO/SE business model.

I'm assuming that there is one, I don't believe Joel and Jeff are stupid, it's just not clear to me what it is.

That's where we have Meta.SO for @Tyrannosaurs:


Doh, should have thought to look.

Interesting, though not 100% convincing for me. EE is riddled with ads and yet clearly see the need to charge as well. SE and SO both benefit from the ability to target ads really well but programmers in particular are notorious for not clicking which will offset that for the core three sites at least.

In terms of the careers and CV model, it works fine for SO / SF but the rest of SE contributes nothing in that area which begs the question how do they support themselves (just low key ads?) and if they don't then aren't they just an overhead? Or are they deemed to basically be a very cheap by-product of the existing SO technology? In which case they don't really need to bring in much, just enough to cover hosting and ad sales so maybe that's the answer.

But I'm still thinking that there has to be something more.

That said the point about the home workers basically being cheaper is well made - there are two ways to be profitable - high revenues or low costs.

Experts Exchange was the first site to come into my mind when I first heard about Google's Personal Blocker.

I was actually thinking of efreedom and the other StackOverflow clones that sometimes appeared ahead of StackOverflow.

(Comment I wrote on my blog)...

Just got an anonymous email - no idea if anyone can verify the truth behind it...


"here is no such person as Brutus Lyon, it is Jenn Prentice from Experts Exchange. She always does shit like this under aliases."

I assumed Brutus was working or staff from EE, I don't see why a fake name is needed or the reason behind it / how it changes anything.

You know guys, I love Stack Overflow. It's always been an enormous help whenever I had a question that someone had an answer for.

But because I earned more than 1.500 reputation scores ( http://stackoverflow.com/users/69424/pestaa ), I feel I have the right to say, the atmosphere does not just feel right as the author states.

Here's how I feel (see the comments):


If someone's astounded by seeing a sensible answer on SO, something's wrong.

Hacker News works so much better by putting far less emphasis on karma, and that's why I decided to contribute to HN, and not SO anymore.

One person out of almost half a million, I am sure it was in jest, anyway, you were up voted the most showing that anyone coming to that topic will see that you have the best answer. It obviously, in that specific example, is just not what the asker was wanting.

Come back to SO! :)

This person has 13k rep, my hunch is he saw at least a fair amount of corners of SO.

But bringing up that specific page was not the basis of my generalization. It was rather a direct case to my observation. It felt like racing, and not fun.

I'll definitely improve the stuff I find useful on SO, but I won't hunt unanswered questions anymore.

Yours is actually fairly typical of many SO answers. Jeff used to say on the podcast that a load of the time you get people answering basically saying "that's not even the right question" which I actually think is one of the great things about it.

But this is actually why the SO voting mechanism works. Someone coming to this question now has two useful answers sat at the top of the pile - one which directly answers the question in an exact, literal fashion, and one which says "hold on, is that the real problem? Maybe you should think about this."

The rep / karma thing is only as much of an issue as you let it be as are comments from people you disagree with. There are always people who have another view (be it right or wrong) but your rep said that you were helping a whole bunch people so I'm surprised that you take one negative comment as something which should override 150+ up votes.

I'd certainly say that in terms a level of grief (150:1) to me that feels more amicable and agreeable than HN can be when it gets feisty.

There were no negative comments to override the pleasure contribution used to be. But it started to decline because I had to go harder and harder against the flow of reputation-hunting to do what I find enjoying -- learning from and talking with smart engineers.

HN does get feisty at times, but the conversation is way, way more mature than I found anywhere else.

What I want to know is, did Lyon make that post because he has actually deluded himself into thinking that EE is still relevant, or because he thought someone would actually be oblivious enough to read it and stop using StackExchange?

I'm not sure which one reflects more poorly on him.

I don't understand why ExpertsExchange is still in business. How can a Q&A site live by asking for a credit card?

simple questions are already answered (most of them on S.O.). unfortunately i used to ask questions that has no answer so i just almost stopped asking them.

when did people start using the word "Whilst"? This guy's obviously not British...

I am British! It is the first thing that came to mind - I think I use both in every day talk... Read the tag line on my blog! "Maybe not the best grammar or writing style... but will try to get my point across!"

Oh well, I hope you still liked the blog post even if you don't like my language usage! :)

I liked the post!

I just started noticing more and more Americans using it in blog posts and I wasn't sure when this trend started.

Dude, I still don't see why such a response is even needed.

a) EE is the reason people wanted to block sites from google results.

b) EE never has useful info even if you scroll down

conclusion: IDK how EE even made money to begin with. I guess on the suckers. Because I feel that if I sign up I am throwing my money away since nobody is else who I want answers from is dumb enough to sign up.

Furthermore, seeing as how forums are Q&A places as well, and sites scrub forums like mad to "generate content" I have zero proof that EE is in any way genuine content.

I find it astounding the level to which people hate Experts Exchange. Calling them "sleazy" and "slimeballs". Where does all this vitriole come from?

Are you all feeling so entitled that anytime someone wants to charge you for something your automatic reaction is hatred?

Here's the problem that EE solved (a long time ago): "How can I create a Q&A site that runs on a subscription, not an ad supported, model?". The obvious dilemma being that the content needs to be indexed by search engines which necessitates giving it away for free, but when people come into the site you want them to pay for the service.

The solution of having people scroll to the bottom of the page isn't deceptive, it's just an imperfect solution to making people pay to use your site. The fact that you can get the answers for free at all is the anomaly - you're not supposed to be able to!

There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to charge for anything. If it works, it works, if it doesn't work, your business fails. EE aren't breaking any laws, hell they aren't even breaking any guidelines. If you don't like it, you don't continue, there's a free trial.

This isn't spam, it's not hurting or hoodwinking or deceiving anyone! This is just a paid service, get over it.

When Mark Bao created a viral marketing campaign to collect a few hundred thousand email addresses and then sell them at private auction everyone here heaped praise on him like he split the atom. Experts Exchange is just running a business and charging a price. If their business sucks then it will die - admittedly there is a hell of a lot of inertia there now because they've been going for so long but WHATEVER! You can't just call people sleazy slimeballs because they're charging for a service rather than giving it away.

Oh and for all you folks saying they don't promote their free signup page enough, look at the fine print below the pricing on this page:


What a sanctimonious and judgmental crowd we have here at HN!

The whole point is, they used to be good, it used to serve a purpose... when they have answers low down or tried to hide all together, they were effectively spamming Google and forcing people to sign up /pay for an answer.

It served a purpose in its time, but SO simply does it better now and EE haven't moved on in years.

And as an "expert" I would rather contribute to a free to ask site helping the public.

I disagree with that definition of spam, it's more like "freemium". Pay for the convenience of not having to scroll to the bottom of the page? Or simply pay for the answer if you want it and you don't know about the scrolling thing - it's their right to charge for content. All they're doing is advertising that they have the answer and trying to make sure as many people as possible pay to find out what that answer is, because that's their business model.

It's fine if they're irrelevant, it's fine if you'd prefer to be part of a stack exchange community, it's fine if you block them in Google or only search "site:stackoverflow.com how to shot codez" so you never have to look at them again - but the scathing retorts treating these people as valueless carrion who don't even deserve to be on the internet is completely unwarranted!

Really, what I object most to is that people are attacking the characters of those involved and calling them slimy and sleazy because they chose a subscription based business model for their Q&A site. A valid decision that has obviously worked.

It's not like they're Jamster ringtone club tricking kids into spending thousands on their phone bills to get an animated crazy frog singing the most insipid song ever created, they're just providing a service and trying to get money in return.

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